Over on the Nashua library blog I ran a trilogy on the historical Jesus. It’s a reader’s advisory blog (no, not in the parental warning sense) where contributors like myself recommend books for the public, and the genres I cover range from horror to fantasy to early Christianity. This month I piggy-backed off a recent cascade of scandalous-sounding books on Jesus, which deal with his marital status, his politics, and even the Secret Mark hoax once used to suggest he was gay. And now I’m getting queries from people who want to know more about this stuff, especially the last: the “Secret Gospel of Mark” and scholar Morton Smith who “discovered” it.
The Secret Gospel of Mark (or Secret Mark, as it’s commonly called) is quoted in a letter supposedly written by the famous second-century theologian, Clement of Alexandria. This letter was “discovered” in 1958 by a biblical scholar named Morton Smith at Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery in Palestine. The part of the “secret gospel” which Clement quotes tells a story similar to the raising of Lazarus in John 11. But instead of raising Lazarus, Jesus revives a young man who “looked at Jesus, loved him, and began to beg him to be with him”. Later in the evening, the young man comes to Jesus “wearing a linen cloth over his naked body; and he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God”.
I am sure that Morton Smith forged his “discovery” of Clement’s letter — as sure as I am of my own age. Even aside from the glaring content (which we’ll get to right away), there’s an immediate red flag which forgery experts call a “seal of authenticity”. The author conveniently goes out of his way to authenticate his own letter, by naming himself Clement, who in turn vouches for the authenticity of the secret gospel which he, again conveniently, quotes at remarkable length. This is all too good to be true, as discoveries go. The other red flag is that no one has ever seen this “discovery”, aside from Smith himself (who took photos of it); it mysteriously vanished from the Mar Saba library where he “found” it. Anyone with sense should be suspicious from the start, and indeed many scholars were.
Once you look at the actual content of Clement’s letter and Secret Mark, it becomes crystal clear that Smith wrote it. What remains unclear is his motive. Did he write it to support his theories, or to test his colleagues? Are we dealing with a forgery like the Hitler Diaries and William Ireland’s Shakespeare play? Or a hoax like the Ern Malley Poems and Alan Sokol’s postmodern essay? Was this fraud or an elaborate prank?
Here are the elements indicating the former — that Smith forged Clement’s letter to reinforce personal convictions and lend force to his academic claims.
(1) Gay Smith, Gay Jesus. Smith was passionate about the church’s view of homosexuality, and he wrote on the subject in a time (1949) when it was rarely discussed. And of course, it turned out that he was gay. His “discovery” in 1958 allowed him to conveniently claim that Jesus was gay. In The Secret Gospel (1973) he suggested that Jesus’ baptism ceremonies were used to enter a state of hallucination, and ascend into heaven; in the kingdom of God the disciples were liberated from the Jewish law; and their spiritual union with Jesus was accompanied by a physical union of sex. So Jesus not only had sex with the disciples — he invested homosexuality with religious significance.
(2) Sex and God’s kingdom. Right before his “discovery”, Smith published an academic paper connecting both Clement of Alexandria and “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1). This is exactly what Secret Mark is about.
(3) Holy lies. Smith was intrigued by the 19th-century debate over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. His “discovery” answers that very question. In the supposed letter, Clement says that one should tell bald-faced lies — indeed, should lie under oath — to those who are easily misled by the truth. This contradicts Clement’s well-known writings, where he insists that one must not swear falsely. The salient point is not so much the contradiction (people do sometimes contradict themselves, depending on situation), but rather the issue speaking directly to Smith’s interests.
To be blunt, based on this evidence alone, anyone unable to see Morton Smith’s fingerprints in Clement’s letter is incompetent. Taken alone, these would seem to indicate that the letter is indeed a forgery in the traditional sense — a fraudulent attempt by Smith to legitimate his beliefs, theories, and sexual orientation.
On the other hand, Smith slow-played his hand. He was too smart to become a victim of his crime. After publishing The Secret Gospel in 1973, he failed to capitalize on his scandalous theory. His book Jesus the Magician (1978) certainly gave him every opportunity — its thesis being that Jesus was more like a pagan magician than a Jewish prophet — and yet he cited Secret Mark in only one place, almost as an afterthought. (When explaining that the “mystery of the kingdom of God” was a magical rite by which young men became entranced, possessed, and then granted the keys to paradise; pp 134-135).
Indeed, instead of running wild with his “discovery”, Smith seemed more interested in his colleagues’ reactions to it — what they might do with the secret gospel, or what bum-steered theories they might come up with. And to see if they could pass his test by spotting the jokes he planted.
Here are those gags, confirming that Smith was less engaged in fraud and more enjoying an elaborate prank.
(1) Morton Salt. Jesus’ famous saying about “salt losing its savor” (Mk 9:50/Mt 5:13/Lk 14:34) is reworded in Clement’s letter to imply free-flowing salt. Iodized salt is not only a 20th-century invention; the inventor was a man named Joy Morton, who founded the Morton Salt Company. This joke was spotted by Stephen Carlson in 2005.
(2) Oscar Wilde. The gospel figure of Salome the disciple (Mk 15:40) is used to invoke a 19th-century play. Salome is among the women in Secret Mark who are rejected by Jesus, implying that Jesus had no interest in women. And in Clement’s letter, there is a puzzling allusion to “seven veils”. It comes from the modern play, Salome, where the lead character does a “dance of the seven veils”. Oscar Wilde was the playwright, and he was a gay martyr. This gag was spotted by Peter Jeffery in 2006.
(3) James Hunter. Smith’s “discovery” in 1958 copied the drama of a novel published in 1940. The novel, The Mystery of Mar Saba, is about a forgery at the exact same library where Smith “found” Clement’s letter. Just like the fake document in Hunter’s novel, Secret Mark reinterprets a resurrection account from the gospels in naturalistic terms. Philip Jenkins made this connection in 2001. (This one is so glaring it’s embarrassing; had it been spotted sooner, a lot less people would have been fooled.)
(4) Gay men, public parks. The most creative joke involves associating the young man who spent the night with Jesus (in Secret Mark) with the young man from Gethsemane (Mk 14:51-52) where Jesus was arrested. In other words, this naked youth who “spent the night with Jesus” also followed Jesus around in a garden. This evokes America in the ’50s — the time of Smith’s “discovery”, and a particularly oppressive time for gay men, when police were arresting them in public parks. This joke was explained by Carlson in 2005.
Smith had the sense of humor required to craft these kind of jokes. Once pointed out, the allusions are obvious (and hilarious). At this point, only fools and the willfully obtuse insist that Clement’s letter/Secret Mark is a genuine document.
So what’s the relationship between the two? Peter Jeffery notes that forgery and hoaxing motives undermine each other, and that a man as conflicted and in as much pain as Smith probably wasn’t too clear on what he was trying to do (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, p 242). Stephen Carlson, who insists on a hoax more than a forgery, nonetheless recognizes that “motives are rarely simple or pure”, and that motives which can be stronger at one point can take a back seat at others (Gospel Hoax, p 80). We’ll never get a handle on Smith’s precise intentions, because we can’t dissect his psyche. But it’s clear that his passion, anger, intellectual arrogance, cleverness, and humor all came together in one of the most brilliant academic fakes of all time. It took a long time to fully expose it.
I said that only fools and the willfully obtuse maintain Smith’s innocence. Some of these die-hards contributed to the collection of essays released this year, Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery? They’re at a point of enough desperation that they shut out the forest for the trees and make mountains of anthills. For instance, in response to Francis Watson’s suggestion that the character of Lord Moreton (from James Hunter’s novel) could be yet another one of “Morton” Smith’s implied jokes, Scott Brown and Allan Pantuck point out that it’s not Lord Moreton who discovers the truth about the fake manuscript in the novel; he simply learns about it (pp 104-105). Or, responding to Stephen Carlson’s point about the connection between “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), Brown and Pantuck say that T. Hagigah 2:1 isn’t only concerned with regulations about forbidden sex, but with all scriptures that the Tannaim thought should be discussed in secret (p 107). And so on.
These objections put us in the theater of the absurd. The character of Lord Moreton is obviously irrelevant (though I’ve no doubt Smith saw it as icing on the cake). The general events of Hunter’s novel speak for themselves. There’s no way their replication in Smith’s real-life “discovery” are coincidences. The full implications of T. Hagigah 2:1 are also a red herring. The connection of the passage with Mk 4:11 — in a paper Smith published literally only a year before his “discovery” — is all you need to see the obvious.
Smith’s defenders are even trying to elevate the burden of proof. Charles Hedrick, for example, says that “the standard of proof for convicting a distinguished colleague of forgery should be higher than what has been offered by the modern forgery theorists” (p 37). First of all, the issue isn’t whether there is enough forensic evidence required to “convict” Smith on any implied criminal level. I’m the first to insist that no matter how obvious someone’s guilt is, he or she should be acquitted in the absence of the required legal evidence. (Casey Anthony being a recent example: it’s obvious she killed her daughter, but the jury was correct to acquit her.) The point is that when confronted with an avalanche of unlikelihoods, coincidences, and modern gags, anyone should be able to confess what is plain as day.
But it gets even worse. Scott Brown’s book, Mark’s Other Gospel, was published only months before Stephen Carlson’s debunking, and he continues to defend his thesis in the wake of the obvious. But his thesis is empty, because it argues that Secret Mark is really about nothing at all. The only way Brown can tame the hoax is by erasing it at every turn. Thus he claims that Clement’s letter doesn’t even speak of a secret gospel — only a mystic one. Nor was this gospel “carefully guarded”, as properly translated — only “securely or safely kept”. In fact, all of the truths conveyed in this “longer” (not secret) version of Mark’s gospel are still available to readers of Mark’s standard version. So why Clement should be telling people to lie (and under oath) about the existence of this gospel, why other Christian sects are getting so sexually charged over it, why the fuss over so much danger, makes no sense.
In his own essay, Peter Jeffery criticizes Brown on the same point:
“Clement’s harsh language of unspeakable teachings, carnal sins, falsifications, foul demons, deceitful arts, magical enslavement, utterly shameless lies, and so on, softens [in Brown’s thesis] into a suburban sit-com in which somebody advises someone else to fudge the truth a bit, so that those pesky neighbors will lack authorization to read a book that is being safely kept nowhere in particular, and which basically says nothing anyway.” (pp 216-217)
Years ago I reviewed Brown’s book and tried to play as fair ball as I could, but in hindsight I was too kind. His work on Secret Mark stands as the worst to date, arguing for a complete non-event.
I know it’s hard for scholars to eat crow. They stake their reputations on what they publish. But there’s more going on here than scholarly pride. Smith’s theories about his “discovery” called forth ridicule from conservative scholars, and it’s a fair bet that many were homophobes. Liberal scholars, naturally, were the ones inclined to give Clement’s letter a fair shake — for the very good reason that we should rejoice in discoveries of alternative gospels. They make things more interesting, and paint early Christianity as it likely was: diverse and (to us) unorthodox, whether sexually or not. But that lure is precisely what forgers rely on to fool us. The real tragedy, as Carlson pointed out, is that Smith’s hoax did the most damage to his friends and sympathizers — broad-minded scholars, in other words, like Scott Brown.